In the modern carwash market, one simple formula for increasing revenue and attracting new customers is: new offerings + improved efficiencies = higher profits. In fact, customers throughout the industry have responded favorably to bright foam waxes, wheel scrubbers, tire shine applicators and even LED lightshows. Here, “responded favorably” frequently translates to “spent more money” and “chose a specific carwash over a competitor.”

These popular new services and features require upgraded tunnel capabilities. Here, modern carwash controllers are responsible for the traditional as well as the newly-added functions in the typical carwash. While controlling wash equipment is an obvious duty, today’s controllers are also responsible for ensuring efficiency, providing notifications and monitoring tunnel and bay equipment.

Expanding controllers

The next generation of tunnel controller is no longer a device that simply sits in a back room and is only accessed if an owner needs to change or tweak something, according to Erica Stripp, communications manager with Innovative Control Systems. They are becoming self-contained, interactive devices that monitor and report specific information about the status of the wash as they control a tunnel.

Rob Miller, lead system designer for DRB Systems Inc., says carwash controller capabilities have grown significantly over the past two decades. If a carwash had a 16 function controller 15 or 20 years ago, that was a “big deal.”Today, companies routinely sell controllers with 128 function capability. This upgrade has become necessary due to added services like lava arches, wax treatments, etc.

Steve Homan with ECO Washlink Systems states that his company rarely sees a new-construction carwash with fewer than 72 functions. At this time, between 150 and 200 controller functions is the most a carwash will install. This number would be a large, high-end tunnel with lots of equipment and increased chemistry application.

While every location needs a controller, the number of functions required can depend on the carwash type. Full-service washes will get away with less controller equipment as they use labor for many additional services. Homan says in the express market, there may be more of a “show” going on in the tunnel, and the customer experience needs to be a bigger part of it.These wash experiences and “show” aspects of a carwash can be improved with access to more controller functions.

For operators with big, long tunnels where the goal is to repeatedly produce a clean, dry car at high speeds, the large number of functions ensures the carwash can perform at a high level. The controller lets a wash apply foam at precisely the right time, rinse properly and thoroughly dry the vehicle for a clean, spot-free result after each wash, Miller says.

Connectivity and notifications

Yet, tunnel functions are not the only areas where modern controllers contribute to the success of a carwash. Brian Janezic owns two Auto Wash Express locations, and he has created a controller software for carwashes. Janezic says the real power of modern controllers is in interfacing with the web. By connecting a relatively low cost micro controller to a web-based service, an individual can allow all the logic and programming to happen in a cloud-based scalable environment. With the logic and processing happening on a central service, the program can be updated as technology progresses and integrated with other web-based services. 

The web connectivity and accessibility through mobile technology is another important aspect of carwash controllers, Janezic states. Whether an owner is going on vacation, opening another wash or simply working as a hands-on owner without being on the property, controllers — which are connective via a smartphone, iPad, tablet or computer — can:

  • Help manage energy usage
  • Help manage variable frequency drives (VFDs)
  • Notify the owner or manager of a malfunction
  • Report on a machine’s input and output function
  • Reveal wash counts and troubleshoot various other problems, such as a door that is not opening or closing.

The notifications Janezic’s system provides arefault conditions of equipment, high chemical use notifications and low chemical use notifications. For reportage, the system provides the owner a car count, chemical use and chemical cost data presented together and broken down by day or hourly data. 

Homan explains that controllers can send an endless amount of information out via text message or email. This includes everything from when employees show up to when they first start washing cars. Alerts can be sent when any services are given away for free to customers, when a rewash happens and when a specific vehicle comes in. These alerts can track wash productivity, employee breaks and other labor issues as well.

Inside the wash, an operator can be alerted when a piece of equipment is ready to fault and where sensors are getting ready to fail, Homan notes. Finally, alerts can let an owner know that motors in the wash are working harder than they should be.

“Anything that’s not running standard, we want to alert on,” Homan says.

“For example, if a sensor reports that a power pack is low it could send an email that the fluid needs to be filled and can shut down the power pack to prevent damage,” Stripp states. “This kind of interaction allows the controller to become more interactive and make decisions based on the inputs that it is monitoring.”

Washing precision

The workhorse feature of carwash controllers is the delivery of wash services a customer wants when he or she wants them, but today’s controllers can also help deliver vehicle profile detection. This is especially important for helping equipment recognize pickup trucks in the tunnel.

“The big key … is being able to turn on and off your devices at the appropriate times,” Miller says. “That’s where the industry is going … being smarter about how we deliver services.”

For instance, it is extremely valuable for a carwash to recognize a vehicle is a pickup truck so that the bed is not inadvertently filled with soap. Sensors connected to the controller can tell the exact location of the open bed, and this can stop the delivery of multiple services. According to Miller, treatments like a lava wax are more expensive to provide, and though it may be pennies per application, it adds up when a business washes several vehicles of this type. In addition, sensors and controllers can deactivate dryer blowers to avoid blowing trash or debris out of an open truck bed.

Miller states that there is “real excitement with these enhanced sensors … delivering services to the exact type of vehicle without operator intervention.” Much like the adding of popular new services, this detection capability via a carwash controller aids in providing a better experience for the customer.

Another area of improvement modern controllers can provide is precise measurement of vehicles as they move through the tunnel. Controller systems can measure better than the actual wash equipment, according to Homan. Again, this feature minimizes the waste of chemicals, changes operation for different sized vehicles and can even adjust functions so, for example, tires are not oversaturated with shiner.

As these examples show, modern controllers help control costs by first making the operator aware of what the costs are. Janezic says that a controller can constantly take measurements and convert that information to chemical consumption data. This constant data stream is the real advantage; the controller takes out the human element of forgetting to measure. Using controllers and reportage options lets an owner be in touch with the pulse of the carwash, easily checking on the data as it arrives and being able to quickly see key metrics in chemical cost and use while correlating it with car count data.

POS integration

Since the point of sale (POS) system dictates what services the controller will activate, these two systems should interact directly, according to Homan. “Everything being washed would have to go through the sale … automatically adjusting the controller based on what they’ve purchased.” By stacking and tracking vehicles, this controller integration makes sure that the correct services are delivered. This minimizes the impact of employee mistakes.

Miller agrees that the key to a good tunnel control system is that it needs to be integrated well with a POS system. When a customer wants a high-end wash, it needs to be delivered, and giving that tight integration is all about giving customers a great experience.

Modern tunnel controllers and wash equipment have redefined how cars are washed today, Stripp concludes. Through these technological advancements businesses are able to wash cars faster and safer than ever before. But, the industry has not yet reached the full potential of where controller technology can go. Controller development will continue, pushed by the popularity of express washes, the desire to reduce labor costs and new advances in wash equipment.